What Kind of Aspirant Are You? - Rajesh Balasubramanian - CAT 100th Percentile - CAT 2011, 2012 and 2014

  • Director, 2IIM Online CAT Preparation | IIT Madras | IIM Bangalore | CAT 100th percentile - CAT 2011, 2012 and 2014.

    This article is part of a series that is the culmination of several years of experience in teaching students for the CAT. In my experience, I have found that we can classify students along two axes – Capacity and Effort:


    The outline given is self-explanatory. The y-axis is a measure of how good you are naturally at the kinds of things the CAT tests (Reading, Aptitude, etc.). The x-axis measures how much work you put into your preparation. We can become pedantic and define high/low in more specific terms, but keeping in mind that we are not looking to do a PhD on this we can skip all that.

    Now, comes the interesting part. This is the part that is not for the weak of heart so if you’re temperamentally unsuited to hearing hard truths you should probably close this window right now.

    Obviously, the top-right quadrant is the best one to be in. These are the kids that go to IIM ABC and are generally good eggs. My favourite quadrant is the bottom right one. These are the fighters and as a broad rule they do remarkably well in life. They learn from first principles, do not search for some quick fix, have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and generally end up being successful and happy.

    The top left is best described as the Hit-or-miss quadrant. These are the kids that will score 99.3rd percentile in one mock and 75th percentile in the next. Usually they ascribe the 99th percentile to their ability and the 75th to extraneous factors. They have the maximum volatility in performance.

    Students in the bottom-left quadrant have the desire but possess neither the flair nor the grit. They like the idea of preparing for CAT but are mildly intimidated by the effort required to grit through this. They flit around the boundaries of CAT preparation (Quora, Facebook, Pagalguy) but never really click into gear. Good friend Zabeer Mohammed from MBAtious calls them ‘wonderland’ candidates.


    What should be the strategy for students in each quadrant?

    The ones in the top-right should take plenty of mocks, and leave as little to chance as possible. They should set the bar high and look to score well across sections. The ones in the bottom-right should find good teachers – they derive enormous value from the right teachers because they have the heart to put in the right kind of effort.

    Ones in the two-left quadrants should look to shift to the right, pronto. Top-left need the right motivation from somewhere and the bottom-left need a reality check.


    How do I know which quadrant I am in?

    If you are honest with yourself, this is not that difficult. If your effort and your scores are very volatile and inconsistent you are in the top-left. The ones in the right quadrants usually know where they stand.

    The biggest problem is with bottom-left, students in this quadrant usually tend to slot themselves in one of the other three. So, we are going to list out symptoms of students in bottom-left.

    1. I have enrolled myself for a course. I have attended only 50% of the classes that happened in the past 2 months.
    2. When I start CAT preparation, I spend more than half the time on Quora, Pagalguy and Facebook reading stuff about CAT preparation and going through the forums.
    3. I planned to take a mock CAT every month from Jan to June and one every week from July onwards. We are in April and I have thus far taken only one mock.
    4. I am a member of 5 CAT prep groups on FB but have taken only one speed test so far. Or, I visit Pagalguy at least once every week but have not solved any DI sets so far. Or, I follow the best coaches on Quora but I have read only one novel in the past 6 months.
    5. I am seriously preparing for CAT but I just cannot bring myself to read for an hour every day.
    6. I want to do tougher and tougher questions in Quant (if there is an LOD 4 I want to try this), but cannot bring myself to read a lot for verbal.

    If you notice two or more of these, please rush out of this quadrant at the earliest. Every other aspect of CAT preparation can come later.

    Bottom-right, we love you guys

    Any one of you in the bottom-right quadrant, reach out to us. We love you guys. You bring in your enthusiasm into the learning arena; we will redouble our efforts and push you hard. We will tutor you, hand-hold you, mentor you and generally be available to you throughout this journey. You are the guys who make our decisions to be in this industry worthwhile.

    One of the reasons I personally love the online platform is simple – I pretend that I am taking a class for all students who are in the bottom-right quadrant. The know-it-alls of top-left and the delusional bottom-left sap the energy from any teacher. But the bottom-right keeps us going. Be it an all-night marathon or expanding the question bank or discussing mock CAT strategies – the best sessions happen with students in the bottom-right and top-right.

    We laid out aspirants across a graph with rectangular coordinates. Now, we go for polar co-ordinates (Go on, look these up).

    We can categorize CAT aspirants into three groups – the first 300, the next 3000 and the 30000 after that. This categorization is based on where students stand based on their natural ability, say, about 6 months prior to CAT. This looks something like this:


    The first 300 are the naturals – the ones who know the basic math and/or have years of practice at reading all kinds of stuff. These are the guys that answer questions even before you have understood them. If they take a few mocks and fine-tune stuff, they should have a shot at 99.xx at CAT. The next 3000 are the ones that are half a notch behind this first 300. They are good at one/two of the three sections. These are the ones that have to spend more time than the first 300 in order to crack the exam. The final 30,000 are a further step behind.

    In any exam, this type of classification can be done. What is the idea behind this exercise, you ask?

    It is important because although there is a correlation between natural ability and success, it is not very high. If you look at people cracking this exam, a large share comes from the final 30,000. A great many guys in IIMA will tell you that there definitely are 3000 higher IQ guys than them out there in the Country who took CAT.

    The section of students cracking the exam looks something like this graph below.


    What should be the preparation strategy for each ring?

    ‘Gifted’ brigade’ –If you are in this group, keep just one thing in mind – Do not become a junkie

    Quite a few students hover around forums/FB groups and answer all kinds of questions at amazing speed. They revel in this and clamour for tougher and tougher questions all the time. Problem with this approach is that you end up preparing for a way-higher-than-CAT-level in one section (usually Quant) and are below par in the two others. You come out with a score like QA – 99.8th, DI-LR, 98.5th and VARC 88th to end with an overall of 98.4. This is a fantastic score, but probably 1.3 percentile points lower than what you could have scored.

    I will let you in on one of the dirtier secrets of the CAT preparation industry. More than 90 percent of the questions posted in forums and groups are way tougher than what you will find in Quant. There are quite a few junkies out there. You cannot possibly run a public forum without attracting junkies; and junkies always clamour for tougher questions. So, in a bid to keep the forum interesting, the difficulty level of questions keeps creeping up.

    How do I recognize I am becoming a junkie?

    1. What are the last two digits of 234^78?
    2. 3^a – 3^b = 1800. What is the maximum possible value of a + b?
    3. What is the maximum number of bounded regions possible when we draw 10 lines on a plane?
    4. What is derangement of 6 items?

    If you think the above are decent/relevant questions, you run the danger of junkie-dom. If you have heard of these terms while preparing for CAT – Fermat’s last theorem, Eulers phi function, Cauchy-Schwartz inequality, Ptolemy’s Theorem, then you are preparing with the wrong crowd. To put it politely, these ideas have not been tested by CAT in the last half century.

    Truth is only about half the candidates in this brigade manage to get 99th percentile or above. This is because they get diverted and focus on all kinds of wrong things.

    The next 3000 – thou shall not be intimidated

    The second ring of 3000 students runs only one big risk – that of being intimidated by the first 300. Students in this group are usually slightly behind the first set, but often imagine the gap to be too huge. This fear factor gets exacerbated when you post answers in public forums and groups. Every time someone answers a question before you have even read it clearly, the pressure mounts. Keep in mind a few very vital things

    1. There are probably 200 very good students who have a fantastic chance of scoring 99.9+. Forget about them. It would be good to study with them, but they are not your main competitors.
    2. The public forums and groups usually exaggerate these differences.
    3. An overwhelming majority of questions posted in these forums are way tougher than CAT.
    4. It also helps to remember that many of the first 300 do not even crack CAT, and often are quite scared of this exam. They fall into the trap of over-preparing for one section. Too frequently, the pressure of being expected to crack the exam also gets to many of the first 300.

    I can confess that I have been amazed at the speed at which students answer questions and been stumped by quite a few questions posed on these forums. Luckily enough these experiences came after I have done my MBA.

    The next 30000 – Prepare in a cocoon

    Prepare from basics till you have a clear idea of two things –

    1. What is the level of difficulty of CAT?
    2. What is your preparation strategy for CAT?

    Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I find a lot of students who fall into a similar trap. They visit all these public internet spaces for CAT and see a great many questions being discussed there. They see a number of students answering questions and discussing answers. They realize that they are not yet ready to attend these sessions (a great many of which are irrelevant for CAT anyway), but they keep going for these anyway. Do not be in this group. CAT prep has two components – Learning new stuff and assessing where you stand. Stay away from benchmarking until you are ready.

    We ran a fabulous all-night marathon session on Facebook that was well-attended and an amazing amount of fun. But I can say with confidence that very few new things could have been learnt by attending the session. It was high on energy, provided fabulous practice and gave this kick of practicing and preparing with many others in a group setting. But if you did not know how to find the number of factors of a number before the session began, chances are you would not have learnt in that session. This is despite the fact that we provided detailed solutions as links from our own website.

    Don’t get your confidence shattered by benchmarking aggressively before you are ready. Learn ideas thoroughly, practice aggressively, assess where you stand. Use Quora, Pagalguy and Facebook as a nice fun distraction and nothing more.

  • Many Thanks for such insights!

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